Where corn is king: Jeb Bush, White House hopefuls address hot topic

Why is Iowa so important in Presidential politics?
Why is Iowa so important in Presidential politics?

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Why is Iowa so important in Presidential politics? 03:43

Story highlights

  • Iowa politicians, residents very protective of corn's role in their economy
  • GOP presidential hopefuls take up hot topic of ethanol, used in motor vehicles

Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)For Iowa's economy, corn is everything.

So it's no surprise that the Republican governor and other powerful voices in state agribusiness are vocal backers of the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal rule that requires gasoline to be comprised of up to 10% in renewable fuels.
One of those is ethanol -- with corn often a key ingredient.
    "Don't mess with the RFS," Gov. Terry Branstad said Saturday, offering a not so subtle warning as he kicked off a daylong agriculture summit that featured a string of likely Republican presidential candidates.
    The RFS is a major issue that White House hopefuls are forced to address whenever they visit the No. 1 corn-producing state that also goes first in the presidential nominating calendar.
    But it's a less popular policy for small government conservatives, who decry the mandate as federal overreach in the private sector.
    In his first 2016 visit to Iowa, Jeb Bush sought to delicately explain his desire to see the RFS disappear over time. "The market's ultimately going to have to decide this," he told the audience at the event, which took place at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
    Bush acknowledged that the mandate, which passed in 2007, has helped lower dependence on foreign oil and boost corn-heavy economies.
    "But as we move forward over the long haul, there should be certainty for people to invest," he argued, saying ethanol will no longer need help from the government. "So at some point we'll see a reduction of the RFS need, because ethanol will be such a valuable part of the energy feedstock for our country."
    He declined, however, to suggest when exactly that may happen.
    In his remarks, Bush also defended his position in favor of legal status for undocumented immigrants after they meet a wide set of requirements. And while attending a fundraiser Friday night in Des Moines, he stood by his support for Common Core, the controversial testing standards that have become a point of contention for conservatives.
    Bush's frank statements on the RFS and his defense of some of his most controversial views indicated that the former Florida governor plans on sticking with his positions as he gets ready to hit the campaign trail, no matter how unpopular they may be to certain audiences.
    Still, he was not totally immune to at least some pandering. Bush told the crowd that he'll be cooking some "Iowa beef" Sunday when he's back home with his family in Florida, adding that he'll probably make some "really good guacamole," too.
    Talking about campaigning for his father's presidential campaigns in Iowa, Bush said he went to at least 50 counties. "I remember eating really well -- eating really, really well."

    Ag issues in the spotlight

    With a John Deere tractor towering near the stage, each candidate sat on stage for a 20-minute Q&A with Bruce Rastetter, an agribusiness entrepreneur and major Republican donor in Iowa. The audience of close to 1,200 was comprised largely of farmers and other leaders in the agriculture industry.
    While Bush took a mild approach to the RFS, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas flat out opposed it, saying Washington shouldn't be "picking winners and losers."
    "I have every bit of faith that businesses can continue to compete and continue to do well without having to go on bended knee asking for subsidies, asking for special favors," he said. "I think that's how we got in this problem to begin win."
    Ethanol proponents argue that because oil companies own gas stations, consumers are unable to access ethanol and therefore it needs the government's support to break through oil's stronghold of the market.
    Cruz acknowledged that his view wouldn't be well-received, but tried to argue that it proved his authenticity.
    "Look, I recognize that this is a gathering of a lot of folks who the answer you'd like me to give is, 'I'm for the RFS, darn it.' That'd be the easy thing to do. But I'll tell ya, people are pretty fed up, I think, with politicians that run around and tell one group one thing, tell another group another thing."
    Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a similar stance and defended his decision to request a waiver that would exempt Texas from the federal mandate. If individual states want to require that ethanol be used in gasoline, that's fine, he said, but not the federal government.
    "I philosophically don't agree that Washington, D.C. needs to be making these decision that affect ... our agriculture industry," Perry said.

    'We better suck up to them'

    Other contenders offered entirely opposite positions. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, said he "absolutely" supports the RFS.
    "That's what the law requires. So let's make sure we comply with the law. That should be the minimum," he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
    Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, ticked off what he called a "laundry list" of benefits, including more energy independence and more jobs for farmers.
    "It is very important for rural Americans," said the former senator from Pennsylvania.
    For his part, Mike Huckabee argued that the ethanol mandate was a matter of national security.
    "America needs to do three things to be free: feed itself, fuel itself, fight for itself," the former Arkansas governor said, adding that relying on foreign governments for energy leads to a weakened United States.
    Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, hit back at criticism that politicians like him simply support the RFS for political reasons.
    "The decisions are made not just frankly for what's best for Iowa -- that's not the rationale. You can't make a decision and say, 'It's good for Iowa. Gee, they're the caucus state, we better suck up to them.' We better make decisions that are good for every consumer," he said.
    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who's had a strong showing in polls since he visited the state in January, made clear that while he's generally a free market guy, he believes ethanol is being blocked from consumers and needs government assistance.
    "Right now, we don't have a free and open marketplace, and so that's why I'm willing to take that position," he said.
    But, similar to Bush, Walker said that he expects ethanol can one day compete openly and "you no longer need in the industry to have these subsidies."
    The audience at Saturday's event was largely subdued, given the tone and dialogue of the summit was more substance, less red meat. Those who supported the RFS, however, received a strong response from the crowd.
    As for those who opposed it, Bill Couser, who co-chairs a campaign called America's Renewable Future which pushes the ethanol mandate, said he's not ready to write anyone off quite yet. But those candidates can expect to hear a lot more from him in the coming months.
    "Maybe I didn't like a few of their answers, but it's going to give me some time to go help them understand the issues," he said.